Last week, a statue of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was taken down by city commissioners in Rome, Georgia. The monument, erected in 1909 by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, had stood in Myrtle Grove Cemetery since 1952, where it had been relocated from a busy intersection to ease traffic congestion. Forrest, widely considered the most skillful cavalry officer in the Confederate army, was credited with saving the city from a Federal cavalry raid commanded by Colonel Abel D. Streight in 1863.
Besides being a fierce fighter and talented tactician, Forrest was a large slaveholder and slave trader, the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and the man whose troops were responsible for the brutal execution of as many as 300 black US soldiers following the Union surrender of Fort Pillow. More than 400 Rome petitioners called for the monument’s removal, while a similar number argued for its preservation. The commission decided to preemptively remove the statue before it could be damaged by vandals or protesters.
The troubling legacy of the Forrest monument has particular resonance for me, as my family has deep roots in Rome and the surrounding area. My father grew up in nearby Calhoun and dozens of our kinfolks fought for the Confederacy. Our families were large slave owners and my great grandmother was an active member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Growing up, I was regaled with stories of my noble and brave Confederate ancestors, fighting for the cause of Southern independence. It was not until my father passed away in his fifties that I undertook the task of researching my family history. What I found surprised me.
Sprinkled in among various fire eaters and dutiful Confederates was the Wright family. Three Wright brothers were the wealthiest slaveholders in my family tree and staunch Union supporters. I wondered why I had never heard of them. Then I discovered that my third great grandpa Moses Wright had fled North to avoid serving a cause he did not believe in and died a refugee. His younger brother also fled and joined the Federal army, only to be killed by bushwhackers trying to make his way home after the war. The third brother, a former US congressman, bowed to peer pressure and reluctantly joined the rebels, serving in the Confederate Congress and sending six sons into rebel service. He later abandoned the Confederacy, meeting with Sherman and Lincoln in 1864 in a quixotic scheme to broker a separate peace for the state of Georgia. Clearly, some of my ancestors and many thousands of others belied the tired, inaccurate old adage of a “solid South.”
Rome, like most large towns in the Deep South, lost the majority of her promising sons and fathers to our nation’s greatest tragedy. Monumental efforts to honor Rome’s wartime dead began in 1887, with the erection of a large marker topped with a funeral urn in Myrtle Hill Cemetery by the Ladies Memorial Association, who maintained the veterans’ section. It honored local Confederates who died “true to the traditions of their lineage” and “firm in conviction of their right,” and assured that “the principles for which they fought can never die.” These words read as a mourning tribute to fallen military men, but also signal a defeated South reasserting itself and starting down the path of fabricating new, more comforting memories of the war; an imagined past that denied slavery as the proximate cause of the sectional conflict, invented legacies of contented slaves and benevolent masters, and constructed a proud but false narrative of chivalrous warriors fighting for a just cause against overwhelming odds. Former Confederates dubbed this warped view of history “The Lost Cause.”
As the first generation of Rome area blacks who had never known slavery came to maturity at the turn of the century, communities throughout the former Confederacy began leveraging Lost Cause mythology as a way to not only inculcate future generations with their preferred narrative of the past, but also to remind blacks of their place in the racial and civic hierarchy in the post-Reconstruction era. They did this, in part, by erecting statues of leading Confederates in prominent public spaces. The messaging was expressed both symbolically by the towering martial monuments themselves and overtly in dedications and newspaper reports: restore the natural and moral order of white supremacy, justify disfranchisement and segregation. Jim Crow shall rule the land.
It is no coincidence that the vast majority of Confederate monuments erected in public spaces during the first quarter of the twentieth century directly coincided with an epidemic of lynching and other racial violence during that period. This is not to say that these monuments had no historical or memorial purposes. It is understandable that Rome, Georgia citizens would want to honor their dead and commemorate wartime important events; but symbols and words matter, especially when they reinforce racial hatred and limit the rights of free citizens. Time and again, these public monuments to a Lost Cause mythology did just that.
Dr. Adam Domby, in his deeply-researched and timely 2020 book, The False Cause, cites numerous examples of Confederate monuments as instruments and symbols of white supremacy and black oppression. When the statue of “Silent Sam” on the campus of the University of North Carolina was dedicated in 1913, keynote speaker Julian Carr left little doubt about its symbolic messaging. Speaking of the Confederate soldier, Carr insisted that “their courage and steadfastness saved the very life of the Anglo Saxon race in the South” and “as a consequence, the purest strain of the Anglo Saxon is to be found in the 13 Southern States—Praise God.” Four years earlier, the Rome chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, named after Forrest, decided to honor the Tennessee general with a life-sized image in Carrera marble, rather than salute one of their many hometown heroes.
Memphis had already erected a statue of Forrest in 1905. A speaker at that dedication lauded Forrest as “a gifted solider of the Lost Cause.” Former general George W. Gordon praised Forrest for his “brilliant battle for Southern freedom and independence, in what he esteemed and we still regard as an unavoidable and defensive war.” Gordon denied there was any wrongdoing at the Ft. Pillow massacre and absolved Forrest of any connections with the KKK by simply omitting that chapter from his resume. A third speaker praised Forrest and his soldiers by acknowledging that “they were of kindred blood and fought with the same Anglo Saxon valor.” Senator J.B. Turley summed up how many in the huge crowd felt about their deceased local luminary: “The principles of the cause for which Forrest fought are not dead, and they will live as long as there is a drop of Anglo-Saxon blood on the face of the earth.” Modern claims that Lost Cause memory has little to do with white supremacy need only read these dedications to understand that the connection was intimate and intentional.
The Atlanta Constitution featured the Rome dedication of the Forrest monument as their lead story on April 27, 1909, along with brief reports on other Confederate Memorial Day celebrations with the sub-headline “All Georgia Unites in Honoring Soldiers of ‘The Lost Cause’.” Governor-elect Joseph M. Brown was in attendance. Placement of the Rome statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the middle of the main downtown street was consistent with the practice of siting such monuments in prominent public spaces in towns and cities across the South. Such placements certainly served their primary purpose of honoring Confederate heroes, but they also celebrated white supremacy’s triumph over the social re-engineering attempted during Radical Reconstruction.
In 1909, Rome decided to replace the urn atop the 1887 memorial to their wartime dead with a large statue of a Confederate soldier. In 2017, a small group pulled the statue down, causing considerable damage. Perhaps the monument would have been less provocative had it retained the funeral urn, but this assault was beyond the pale. Cemeteries are sacred spaces where dead of all backgrounds should be respected. Forrest, on the other hand, has no business standing in a memorial garden among dead Romans. His association with violence against blacks with the KKK and at Ft. Pillow goes well beyond even the hackneyed “men of their times” defense of slavery and brands him, despite his martial deeds, as a despicable character in any day, unworthy of being immortalized in stone. It is good that Rome finally took him down.
Romans may honor their dead Confederates without lionizing either the real cause they fought for nor the bogus cause they invented in order to rewrite history and reimpose white racial dominance. Rome and Floyd County have plenty of accomplished citizens in their history. It is time they focused on those who did good work for all her citizens, not just the privileged white elite.
David T. Dixon is the author of more than a dozen published articles on Georgia’s Civil War history. His most recent book is Radical Warrior: August Willich’s Journey from German Revolutionary to Union General (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2020).
Adam H. Domby, The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (Univ. of Virginia Press, 2020).
Atlanta Constitution, 23, 24, 27 April 1909.
CoosaValleyNews.com, 29 January 2021.
Rome News-Tribune, 12 June, 8, 15 July 2020.
Forrest Monument Association, The Forrest Monument: Its History and Dedication. A Memorial in Art, Oratory and Literature (Memphis, 1905).